Just what is a summer book, anyway? Does it have to be a big, fat, juicy page turner to earn the right to be packed away in the luggage (or downloaded on the e-reader) and taken along on vacation? We put that question to several book reviewers. After all, they make make their living reading books, so what do they take with them when they go on a road trip, fly overseas, or hunker down in the country?
John Freeman, editor of the literary magazine Granta, thinks our collective idea of summer reading may be too narrow. He likes to read all kinds of things when the weather gets warm. Big novels are great on the beach, but later, when sitting on the porch or settling down for the night, he'll pull out a more slender volume: essays perhaps, or even poetry. Salon book reviewer Laura Miller also reads essays in the summer, but she really loves a novel that carries her away to a far off place where she can get lost, even when she's not on vacation. And Slate reviewer Troy Patterson, who says he's more of a hammock reader than a beach reader, likes the extra time summer allows to linger over a book, reveling in the language as well as the plot. So here are a few of the books these three reviewers say will make for some good "summer reading" this year.
Recommended By Laura Miller
By Guy Gavriel Kay, hardcover, 592 pages, Roc Hardcover, list price: $26.95
Miller calls this epic adventure story "completely transporting." It is set in an imaginary country based on China during the Tang Dynasty, complete with a culture full of poetry, art and plenty of palace intrigue. The hero, a general's son, is given a gift of 250 perfect horses by a foreign princess. It's a gift with consequences as he gets caught up in the schemes of the emperor's favorite concubine, a legendary and cunning beauty. Miller says the book combines the best of historical and fantasy novels to create a great read where "you don't know what could happen next." (Read about Kay's hero, the soldier-slash-poet Tai, as he prepares for a new day — which he will spend burying casualties of war.)
The Good Son: A Novel
By Michael Gruber, hardcover, 400 pages, Henry Holt and Co., list price: $26
No summer reading list would be complete without an international thriller that takes you to exotic places. And this one, says Miller, combines a great plot with such wonderful writing that you don't feel like you "just ate a bag of potato chips" when you are finished. It's a smart thriller about a U.S. special forces solider raised in Pakistan whose mother gets kidnapped by militants in Afghanistan. He devises a way to trick the Army into rescuing her while she desperately bargains with her captors for the lives of her fellow hostages. Miller says the novel has lots of action and suspense but is also thought-provoking in its examination of the differences between modern Western culture and a tribal way of life. (Read the book's mysterious opening, in which our narrator is awakened in the middle of the night by a call from his mother — who, despite being under a fatwa, is about to jet off to Pakistan.)
Also recommended: The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them by Elif Batuman. "A hilarious collection" of essays and travel stories about people who obsess about Russian novels. Miller says even if you can't get through a Russian novel, you'll find something to laugh about in this book.
Recommended By John Freeman
Parrot And Olivier In America
By Peter Carey, hardcover, 400 pages, Knopf, list price: $26.95
This historical novel is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, famous for his 19th century study of American society, "Democracy in America." In Carey's fictional account, Olivier, the character based on de Tocqueville, comes to America with his companion, Parrot, a young English printer who has been in and out of prison. The story is told in both voices, and because they come from such different backgrounds they have very different impressions of America and its young democracy. As the two hit the road, argue and fall in love, they develop something of a "bro-mance." And though the novel is sophisticated and beautifully written, Freeman says it is also a page turner and quite simply "one of the best novels I've read in the last few years." (Read Olivier's witheringly arch description of his childhood home and his beloved, maddening, long-suffering mother.)
The Best Of It: New And Selected Poems
By Kay Ryan, hardcover, 288 pages, Grove Press, list price: $24
Summer, says Freeman, is not just about page turners. He argues that novels are like the "big meal," whereas smaller books of poems or essays are more like palate cleansers. For those moments when you're looking for a book that you can pick up or put down when you want, he recommends this book of poetry by the nation's poet laureate, Kay Ryan. Freeman says Ryan has a "well-carpentered, deeply intelligent, plain-spoken American voice" that harks back to Robert Frost. (Read three wistful, poignant poems by Ryan about the passage of time, and the "dreamy wading feeling" of relief.)
Also recommended: For another "palate cleanser," Freeman recommends film director John Waters' book of essays, Role Models, which he says is very funny, sometimes dirty and "sort of like an intellectual autobiography through collage."
Recommended By Troy Patterson
Hitch-22: A Memoir
By Christopher Hitchens, hardcover, 448 pages, Twelve Books, list price: $26.99
Hitchens, the acerbic pundit known for blistering attacks on his political and philosophical foes, shows a softer side in this memoir that Patterson says is more like "a great raconteur telling stories about his own life." Here, Patterson says, Hitchens is in "armchair," not "lectern," mode, and perhaps the best stories in the the book involve his longtime friends such as Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. In fact, Patterson says the book emerges as something of a tribute to friendship itself. (Here, Hitchens describes his mother, Yvonne. He writes, "It makes a great difference to have had, in early life, a passionate lady in one's own corner.")
The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis, hardcover, 384 pages, Knopf, list price: $26.95
Perhaps it's not surprising that Patterson would also like this novel by Hitchens' pal Martin Amis. Patterson calls Amis "the best living English-language prose stylist" and says he returns to form after some disappointing books in recent years. This coming-of-age novel tells the story of 20-year-old Keith Nearing, who is spending the summer of 1970 in Italy with two girls. An English major, Nearing is immersed in reading about old-fashioned notions like virtue just as as the sexual revolution of the '70s is getting under way. In the end, it proves to be "an erotically decisive summer" for Keith. (Four days into his summer in Italy, Keith describes the experience like "living in a painting ... with its cadmium reds, its cobalt sapphires, its strontian yellows." In this excerpt, he strolls through the streets, flanked by two young beauties, Lily and Scheherazade.)
Also recommended: Lonelyhearts: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney by Marion Meade. Though the publicity material describes this as a story of star-crossed lovers, Patterson says it is really "two life stories with a love story at the end," and each of the life stories is interesting in its own right.
The wry narrator of Martin Amis' clever 12th novel is full of observations and edicts about sex and aging and the social revolution that rocked his protagonist's world in the 1970s. He faintly echoes and mischievously inverts Jane Austen's "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife," with the assertion: "It is the near-universal wish of dying men that they had had much more sex with many more women."
The Pregnant Widow, a felicitous comeback after Amis' last two novels, Yellow Dog and House of Meetings, is at once a romp, an exercise in extended nostalgia, a tease and an energetic meditation on the seismic social shift that caused "surface ... to supersede essence" and youth to trump class, race and sex as a source of power.
The novel focuses on a "hot, endless, erotically decisive summer" spent by a group of libidinous 20-year-olds in a castle on an Italian mountainside. Keith Nearing, in the "climax of his youth," is faced with a "binary moment," a choice "between two futures" that changes his life. More than three decades later, Keith, "now well launched on the bullet train of his fifties, where the minutes often dragged but the years tumbled over one another and disappeared," finally sorts out what happened that summer.
The setup in Italy is part Decameron (as was Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills) and part The Big Chill — an extended, somewhat debauched house party with endless talk, sex and talk of sex. Keith is on summer holiday from college with his hyper-rational on-and-off girlfriend, who has lost her "sexual otherness," feels like a sibling and sees right through him. He becomes obsessed with her statuesque friend, Scheherazade, who's recently blossomed into a busty bombshell, and the extravagantly unreadable, wide-bottomed Gloria Beautyman. Amis wrings an astounding degree of narrative suspense out of the question of whether or not Keith will score with these women.
Amis' father Kingsley famously accused him of showing off in his virtuosic early novels (several of which, including Dead Babies and London Fields, also feature Keiths who do not fare well). Sure enough, he studs The Pregnant Widow with references to Shakespeare, D.H. Lawrence and Philip Larkin, among others. The title comes from Alexander Herzen's quote about revolutionary change leaving behind "not an heir, but a pregnant widow." But because they are integral to the text, these literary allusions are exhilarating rather than pretentious: Keith is an English lit student plowing through the canon, including Austen, George Eliot, Richardson and Dickens, in search of enlightenment on relations between the sexes. He's also, "ominously, a K in a castle," ripe for metamorphosis.
The best parts of The Pregnant Widow, however, are neither his horndog's laments nor his literary exegeses, but Amis' hilarious riffs on the "silver tsunami."
"As the fiftieth birthday approaches, you get the sense that your life is thinning out," Amis writes. "And you sometimes say to yourself: That went a bit quick ... . Then fifty comes and goes, and fifty-one, and fifty-two. And life thickens out again. Because there is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being, like an undiscovered continent. This is the past."
Martin Amis' newest is part Decameron, part Big Chill, as twenty-somethings in an Italian castle navigate the sexual revolution. Laura Bush navigates her way from Midland, Texas, to a life in the White House. A miraculously preserved 18th-century rabbi reanimates (oy gevalt!) in Memphis. And civil rights legend Andrew Young passes life lessons to his godson.
The Pregnant Widow
By Martin Amis
In 1970, Keith Nearing, the 20-year-old English lit student at the center of Martin Amis' 12th novel, spends the summer in a castle in Campania, Italy, with his on-and-off girlfriend and a group of friends. They talk and lust and couple and recouple as they try to figure out who they are while navigating the turbulent, uncharted waters of the sexual revolution. It's a summer that has lasting effects on all their lives, and which Keith only manages to sort out more than 30 years later. The Pregnant Widow is part Decameron, part Big Chill and combines trenchant commentary on the enormous social changes of the 1970s with a meditation on aging.
Amis is back in fine form, riffing brilliantly on sex, beauty, age and the aftermath of social revolution. He milks his somewhat thin mountainside plot for all it's worth, managing to create suspense over whether or not his hapless, horny protagonist will bed the objects of his desire. But it's his hilarious observations about the 'talentless, irresponsible, and above all low-budget horror film' of old age that really score. — Heller McAlpin, NPR book reviewer
Hardcover, 384 pages; Knopf; list price, $26.95; publication date, May 11
Spoken From The Heart
By Laura Bush
There was plenty of joking by the end of George Herbert Walker Bush's four years in office that his wife, Barbara, would have done a better job had she been president. That feeling was less pervasive during Bush 43's eight-year term, but Laura Bush probably would have gotten significantly higher approval ratings than her husband had anyone wanted to poll the question in 2008. On TV, the first lady came across as well read, forthright and loyal to her husband and her country. And so she is in her autobiography, Spoken from the Heart. The book takes Laura Welch from her childhood in Midland and El Paso, Texas (where her dad sold auto financing and then built homes that the family serially moved into), through college years and work as a teacher and librarian, a whirlwind romance with "Midland's most eligible bachelor," and finally to life among one of America's most prominent families and her years in the post-9/11 White House.
The autobiography is an easy read; Laura Bush has a fine memory and is a good writer. As a Texan, storytelling seems to come naturally to her. A small-town librarian caught up in the strong currents of the Bush family's rise to power, she fills the role of outside observer naturally. But she is no dispassionate neutral. Public disaffection or media criticism of the Bush men in her life is invariably described by her as unfair and unfounded. This undermines her credibility on the political front. In Laura's world, Republicans are good and Democrats are duplicitous. During her husband's second term, Abu Ghraib, the president's response to Hurricane Katrina and the deteriorating war in Iraq spur much of the country to turn on him. For Laura Bush, this is unwarranted and unjust. She knows in her heart that both of them are doing the best they can. She lifts up the surge in Iraq as evidence of the president's unwavering belief in what he's doing, no matter the political cost. And in this, she's right. — Wade Goodwyn, NPR correspondent, Dallas
Hardcover, 456 pages; Scribner; list price, $30; publication date, May 4
The Frozen Rabbi
By Steve Stern
Memphis-born novelist Steve Stern says that growing up, he didn't get exposed much to Jewish tradition. You wouldn't know that reading The Frozen Rabbi. It mimics centuries of Yiddish writing, both in subject and style. In fact, before it became a book, the story was serialized on a daily website, in the same way Jewish-American writers first published their own tales 100 years ago in Yiddish newspapers. In The Frozen Rabbi, a miraculously preserved 18th century rabbi reanimates in the basement of the 21st century family whose ancestors acted as his protectors for several hundred years. Stern's story pingpongs back and forth in time as the nebbishy teenage son, Bernie Karp, reads the text that accompanied the rabbi. He learns that the old man had plunged into a pond in the old country and was flash-frozen. The story splits into Bernie's awakening to love and the world, and the improbable rise of the Rabbi-on-Ice as a born-again Jewish evangelist.
Steve Stern sure can write a snappy sentence. And I have nothing against snappy sentences. I'm happy to tag along as Stern's joy overflows and pours into countless whirlpools of self-indulgence, each more improbable than the last. I found this multigenerational fantasy infectious. Yet, while there are some fine jokes and brilliant passages in The Frozen Rabbi, there are, alas, few believable characters. Oh, and the whole story goes nowhere. Stern manages to playfully capture Yiddish syntax with such precision that you might think the author had just been unfrozen from the 18th century himself. Where his encyclopedic knowledge of Jewish fiction comes from I do not know, but let's just agree he's read a lot of Isaac Singer and Sholem Aleichem. The Coen Brothers, fresh off another suburbia-meets-shtetl concoction in A Serious Man, might want to option this book — and get out their rewrite pens. — Art Silverman, senior producer, All Things Considered
Hardcover, 384 pages; Algonquin Books; list price, $24.5; publication date, May 11
Walk In My Shoes
Conversations Between a Civil Rights Legend and His Godson on the Journey Ahead
By Andrew Young and Kabir Sehgal
Opinionated and at times brash, Andrew Young acted as a sort of conscience of the American civil rights movement, challenging it when it got too heady, always questioning the tactics and mission in order to refine and improve. He did this from within; Young was one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s closest advisers and friends, and King counted on him to take the contrarian view in strategy discussions. In Young's new book, co-written with his godson Kabir Sehgal, he explains to Sehgal that acting behind the scenes is the best way to get things done. "You can accomplish anything you want in life," he says, "as long as you give other people credit." Young's conversations with Sehgal are told in a Tuesdays with Morrie style — experienced sage passing on guidance to an eager student. They discuss leadership, racism, love, Barack Obama's presidency and more. Reflecting on experiences as a preacher, U.S. congressman, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and mayor of Atlanta, Young also shares his candid thoughts on why Jimmy Carter belongs alongside America's greatest presidents, how his principles would allow him to forgive al-Qaida terrorists and whether it is really possible to end racial discrimination.
Sehgal did all 20-somethings a favor by writing this book. His godfather's comments, although sometimes controversial, are penetrating and superbly relevant, particularly to those looking for a purpose in their lives. Always listen first — to yourself and to others — and don't try to do too much too quickly. That may sound like odd advice for someone with Sehgal's already long list of accomplishments — Ivy League graduate, author, entrepreneur, professional musician. Young presents an odd dichotomy, at once patient and forgiving but also blunt and practical. One can see how he helped shape the civil rights movement, and how it also shaped him. His most valuable lesson from those days might be this: 'Don't get your 15 minutes of fame until you know what you want to say and who you are.' At a time when celebrity is often more valued than making a difference, this is wisdom indeed. — Rachel Estabrook, reader, The Diane Rehm Show